A character piece on the WA coastal towns of Dongara and Port Denison, the 100-year-old Moreton Bay Fig Trees that line Dongara’s streets, and a 92-year-old woman from the area

100 Years in the Shade

Fiona Harper has descendents from Dongara – one of whom is approaching the same age as the century-old Moreton Bay fig
trees that line its streets. It could be time for a double celebration.


Moreton Bay figs live longer than most people. And the old trees lining the main street of Dongara – 65km south of Geraldton – have, for 99 years, provided welcome shade and relief from the energy-sapping sun. My 92-year-old grandmother, Thora Harper, recalls her childhood when today’s magnificent trees were mere saplings. “They were nothing like they were last time I visited,” says Thora. “They were hardly noticeable back then.”

Dongara’s main thoroughfare of Moreton Terrace is beautifully shaded with this arboreal canopy. Move 10km inland from the coast and the howling sea breeze ceases to exist. It’s replaced by a hot, dry easterly that catches in your throat and fills your mouth with dust. It’s fitting that the 100th birthday of these magnificent trees will be the centre of the town’s celebrations in 2006.

Listen to the trees as they whisper their secrets from the newly renovated Coffee Tree cafe (now also a book cafe serving gourmet food, including fresh pancakes).  Its tables are nestled beneath the imposing branches of one of these giants. Named from the Indigenous word Dhungarra (“meeting place for seals”), Dongara and its twin town of Port Denison are an interesting mix of mid-1800s history and the modern infrastructure of the rock lobster industry. Roc Oil has recently struck black gold in the area, and the town is experiencing an influx of workers involved in this exploration. Local hoteliers are working feverishly to develop inventive methods for increasing room capacity. The magnificent Priory Lodge, dating back to 1881, has even installed “dongas” (transportable one-person demountables with ensuites) as a temporary measure to meet the demand.

The local historical society is very active and has compiled a Dongara Heritage Trail brochure, featuring a well signposted walk that encompasses the four or five streets that make up Dongara. The heritage buildings stand out as obvious signifiers of a bygone era. The most impressive is perhaps the Royal Steam Roller Flour Mill, built in 1894 and closed in 1935, with the oldest being Russ Cottage, built in 1868, with a kitchen floor made from crushed anthills, packed down hard.

There’s an opportunity for people with family history in the area to trace their family trees. The ever-increasing database of the Irwin District Historical Society, which houses offices and a museum in Dongara’s Old Police Station (1870), holds records going back to the first forays by the Gregory brothers in 1846. Lyn Broad of the IDHS says: “I’m a huge admirer of the Gregory brothers. I read recently that when they were droving cattle in this district, looking for suitable grazing pasture, they let out shouts of joy when they came across the Irwin River. The grasses were said to be up to the cattle’s bellies.” It’s easy to imagine their rapture when you view the dry, dusty pastures away from this fertile river valley.

The settlers of the Swan River Colony ventured north from Perth and through the Swan Valley on the lookout for suitable land to till. Once the town of York was settled, they continued to drive cattle further north towards the coast. Dongara’s cemetery holds the remains of many of this country’s earliest settlers. In fact, the first white female believed to be born in the Swan River Colony, Sophie Mitchell nee Dent, is interred here. The main pathway through the cemetery is still a gazetted street, listed on official town planning documents.

Thora Harper, who now lives just south of Perth in Rockingham, comes from a long line of early settlers. Her great grandchildren, including me, can be traced back six generations from the Dongara area. She hails from the Rowland family, which arrived in Fremantle in 1830 on board the Tranby. The family home in Waldeck Street, in which Thora was born, has been converted into the Dongara Backpackers Lodge. She recalls when the new baker arrived in town. “Oooh, I used to peak out from behind the curtains and watch him walk by,” she says. “He was so handsome.”

Thora and Stan Harper were married as teenagers in 1930 in a simple celebration, typical of the era. “I have many relatives in Dongara, but some have now died,” says Thora, eloquently understating the case; a wander through the cemetery shows that some died more than a century ago.

Port Denison forms the coastal part of the twin towns and houses a thriving lobster fishing industry. Over the season more than 70 fishing boats work from the small, protected harbour. The fishermen rise with the sun and the waters offshore can be seen crawling with boats as they work their lines of craypots. Late each morning they return to the docks to unload their catch onto the waiting conveyor belt of the processing factory. Visitors are welcome at the live lobster factory and guided tours provide an interesting insight into the journey from craypot to restaurant table. Each afternoon live lobsters make the voyage to Perth airport to meet the evening flight to Hong Kong and beyond.

The west coast of Australia can be treacherous, and Port Denison is no exception. It has a reputation for being wild and unforgiving. Along the waterfront there’s a memorial walk, in tribute to the scores of ships and seafarers lost in these waters. The old jetty eventually succumbed to the wild seas, and its remains can still be seen in the harbour. Before the marina was built, the Irwin River was the local port of call for grain ships, and many sunk with holds full of wheat. Now, fishermen and tourists ply the waters. Fishing charters are available, or there’s a boat ramp from which to launch your own craft. The sea breeze blows in late each morning, making the area a dream for wind- and kite-surfers. White sandy beaches stretch as far north as the eye can see. Grannys Beach, north of the harbour rock wall, is a sheltered cove right on the doorstep of the caravan park.

Port Denison offers many accommodation options. There are holiday homes for rent, some with superb views of the setting sun across the ocean. Five caravan parks in the twin towns cater for the steady stream of nomads touring the Indian Ocean Drive. Expect to find a good selection of seafood on local restaurant menus all year round – the beachfront fish ’n’ chip shop certainly sells some of the best seafood I’ve ever experienced.

DETAILS: Dongara & Port Denison
Where: 360km north of Perth (65km south of Geraldton) along the Brand Highway.
Dongara Denison Tourist Information Centre: 5 Waldech St PHONE: (08) 9927 1404
The Coffee Tree cafe: 8 Moreton Tce PHONE: (08) 9927 1400
Priory Lodge: St Dominic’s Rd PHONE: (08) 9927 1090
Irwin District Historical Society: Old Police Station, 5 Waldeck St PHONE: (08) 9927 1323 WEBSITE: http://www.irwinhistory.org.au/
Dongara Backpackers Lodge: 32 Waldeck St PHONE: (08) 9927 1581

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